For once, this month global media attention was drawn to the region for positive reasons. The visit of Pope Francis to Iraq shone a light on a community hoping for healing and reconciliation and on the historic presence of Christians in the Middle East.
In Iraq, this month saw the first ever visit of a Vatican Pope. Despite security and COVID-19 concerns, Pope Francis was determined to encourage Iraqi Christians and meet with government and religious leaders to call for an end to sectarian violence, for reconciliation and love of neighbour. He held meetings in highly symbolic locations, including Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the Chaldean Catholic cathedral in Baghdad where terrorists murdered 58 worshippers in 2010, and between ruined buildings in Mosul, a former stronghold of so-called Islamic State (IS). His private audience with revered Shia leader Ali al-Sistani sent a message of reconciliation to Iraq’s majority Shia population and, perhaps to the Iranian backers of Shia militias in the country. In the historic Christian town of Qaraqosh, formerly overrun by IS, and at a stadium in Erbil, where thousands of Christian families fled, the visit represented a renewal of hope for the country’s Christian communities.
Some form of reconciliation also seems to be in the air in Ankara, Turkey. After a series of positive signals sent out to the United States, European Union, and even Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Erdogan government has now made public that it is seeking to re-establish relations with Egypt. Turkey and Egypt saw cooperation collapse after the military takeover of Egypt that ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi in 2014. President Sisi and President Erdogan have never hidden their mutual disdain. While Turkish officials appear upbeat on their dialogue with Cairo, Egyptian officials are cautious and asking for actions as well as words. Many see this outreach by Ankara as its attempt to ease Turkey’s isolation in the East Mediterranean over gas exploration and exports and to find a workable solution to the problem of Libya. There, Turkey and Egypt support the Tripoli government and the eastern-based forces of Khalifa Haftar respectively.
Also in Turkey, the nation’s association of Protestant churches issued its annual report. The association represents some 182 fellowships, around 100 of which have legal status. Happily, it reported a significant reduction in hate crimes against Christian individuals or institutions compared to the previous year. However, it noted that many foreign Christian workers were denied entry to the country and the increasing pressure this places on local leaders given that there are no Christian training colleges in Turkey.
A massive oil spill near Israeli shores in February has led to accusations by the government of Israel of a deliberate act of “environmental terrorism” by Iran. Some 1,000 tons of black tar is reported to have covered a substantial part of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline. Israel suspects that a Libyan oil tanker intentionally caused the spill. These tankers are often used by Iran to smuggle oil into Syria. The issue of oil tankers has been a concern for a while. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that a dozen Iranian tankers had had mysterious accidents, small explosions or engine failures that resulted in their being forced to return to their port. These were largely seen as Israeli special operations targeting Iran’s lucrative oil trade to Syria.
Another landmark reform has been made in Saudi Arabia. The authorities have modified the abusive Kafala system, which gave employers excessive control over migrant workers in the country. It meant that workers could not leave the country without their employer’s permission nor move to work for anyone other than the sponsor who got their work permit. This has been used to entrap migrant workers, especially those from Asian and African countries, in dire and degrading working conditions. The move is a positive step in the right direction, although the sponsorship system is still in force and will need greater reform to halt the abuse of migrant workers that is so prevalent across the region.
Nothing seems to persuade the political classes in Lebanon to act out of anything other than self-interest. France and the United States have both given strong warnings that Lebanon is fast approaching economic failure while the country’s political deadlock continues. Its politicians also faced fierce criticism from citizens and international organisations after it emerged that a group of Lebanese politicians had prioritised themselves and their families and entourage in the first vaccinations against COVID-19. World Bank officials even threatened to suspend the financing of vaccines and financial support for the country’s COVID-19 response.
Another deeply concerning sign was the assassination of Shia intellectual and critic of Hezbollah, Lokman Slim. The activist and writer had adopted “Zero fear” as his motto and was investigating possible Hezbollah ̶ Syria links to the explosive materials that were stored in the port of Beirut. He was also encouraging Shia young people not to be afraid to voice their criticism of Hezbollah’s actions.
There has also been worrying news of an apparent rollback on freedom of expression in Tunisia. The North African state had emerged as the one promising example in the region of social and political change that had avoided many of the pitfalls of what was termed the Arab Spring. It had held elections and found political actors who were willing to compromise. But there has been a growing number of reports of arrests of activists who have used social media to call for reform, criticise the government or seek to organise protests. Voice of America reported the arrest of at least 50 such activists for posts on Facebook. Some worry that the progress we witnessed in Tunisia since the removal of President Ben Ali is now being reversed. Ironically, across the region, the same social media that was used by activists in 2011 to mobilise protest is now being used by governments to monitor and crack down on dissent.
War crimes referral
In latest news, it seems that the wife of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Asma al-Assad, is now facing an investigation by the British Metropolitan Police following a referral to its War Crimes Unit. She is being accused of being among “influential actors” who encouraged and incited acts of terrorism and war crimes. Asma al-Assad is a British citizen, and if found guilty could face imprisonment in the UK as well as loss of her British citizenship.
It is overwhelming to think that the war in Syria, which began with young people asking for reform, is now entering its tenth year with half of the country’s people displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. It is unimaginable to expect Syria to become again the relatively prosperous and stable country it once was. Areas are now controlled by multiple countries and militias, with little hope that unity can be achieved. President Assad seems content to have reasserted control over most of his war-ravaged land. With dissidents unwelcome in government areas, he is expected to run in and win presidential elections due next month. International church leaders, meanwhile, including the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance, have called on the United States and the European Union to remove sanctions that prevent the Syrian population from accessing basic services and health supplies, and to address the unintended consequences of measures that are hindering the delivery of aid.
Iranians, Afghans, Azeris and Kurds will be among the peoples who celebrate the Persian New Year festival or Nowruz (“New day”) this Saturday (20 March), the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. Although Nowruz has ancient roots in Zoroastrianism, Christians in Iran find that its underlying theme of new life resonates strongly with their own faith in Christ who gives us life everlasting. SAT-7’s Persian channel will have special programmes to mark the new year.
The usual celebrations associated with the 13-day holiday are likely to be restrained, however, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran has had the highest COVID-related death toll in the Middle East. A health ministry spokeswoman reported that some 3,848 patients are currently being treated in intensive care units. In January, Ayatollah Khamenei controversially banned western vaccines, so Iran is currently using Russian and Chinese vaccines, while also developing several itself.
Watch SAT-7’s explanation of the customs and Christian understanding of Nowruz, the Persian new year.